Wednesday, May 29, 2013

woody allen and actors

I have to admit that I stopped keeping up with Woody Allen's films on a regular basis in the mid- '90s. Deconstructing Harry was probably the last one I saw in a movie theater until the recent Midnight in Paris. I have seen a few of his more recent output — Match Point is a definite highlight, a modern morality play similar in theme to his earlier, very dark Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen seems to be drawn to filming moral dilemmas (as well as repeating himself) as evidenced by two of his British-set films that I caught up with recently — Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. Both films use murder to move along their plots, but Allen isn't worried about the body count — he wants the audience to know how he and his characters feel about the inevitability of death.

Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in Scoop
Scoop tries to work as an old-school Allen comedy. It features his most recent muse, Scarlett Johansson, as Sondra, a student reporter who starts getting tips from a deceased crack reporter, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), after volunteering in two-bit magician Sid's (Woody Allen) on-stage show. Strombel, even after death, is wild to break the story of the Tarot Card Killer, and he urges Sondra to follow his leads, which implicate handsome aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). Sondra and Sid both start to see Strombel and team up to investigate Lyman. But Lyman soon charms the pants off of Sondra and she is falling fast. Is she falling in love with a serial killer? Does she even care? Scoop doesn't really work. Johannsen and Jackman have absolutely no chemistry. It's pretty unbelievable that he would be charmed, even moderately interested, in this gawkey, dopey girl. Allen is mildly amusing, and McShane is criminally underused. There is something too serious, too stilted to the pacing. The film and the comedy never take off. Maybe Allen couldn't shake off the mood of his previous film, Match Point.

Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), "I just can't get the vision of you in your swimsuit out of my head."
Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), "Oh I'm glad you liked it! It was marked down!"
Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), "The man is a liar and a murderer, and I say that with all due respect."
Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor in Cassandra's Dream
Allen made the much more interesting Cassandra's Dream right after Scoop, and returned to a more serious-toned investigation of murder. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play two brothers, Ian and Terry, who are faced with a dilemma. Terry (Farrell) owes a lot of money and is being threatened with harm unless he can come up with it. Enter their Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who will be happy to lend them the money and solve all their problems, if they can just do him one little favor — eliminate a pesky business rival. The brothers' different reactions to whether or not to do the crime and the resulting aftershock make up the rest of the movie. Both McGregor and Farrell are great — they seem to switch back and forth between who is the "good" brother and who is the "bad" one, leaving themselves and the audience hopelessly muddled in a gray area. The story itself isn't much; it's how the characters react to the choices (or lack of choices) they face.
Ian and Terry's Father (John Benfield), "Like the poet said: 'The only ship certain to come in has black sails.'"

Ian (Ewan McGregor), "He was right about one thing. Once you cross the line, there's no going back."
Supporting players in Cassandra's Dream include a lot of familiar, talented faces: John Benfield, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, and Jim Carter. Blink and you might miss some of them. Allen definitely likes the ensemble theater approach.

Watching these two films made me think about Woody Allen and actors. He likes to populate his films with the most talented and current actors around, but they frequently operate as position holders in his filmic chess games. Maybe he has never really been overly interested in them. The exceptions come when the actor has such a strong personality or film identity that they are able to transcend or avoid Allen-itis. Some examples of successful avoiders and victims of Allen-itis:

Midnight in Paris — Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are appealing people and we connect to their acting personas. Rachel McAdams fares not as well, playing a classic Allen demanding girlfriend, her character and dialogue is caught in the Allen-itis loop.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
Celebrity — A complete mess. Watching (and listening to) Kenneth Branagh try to sound like Woody Allen is a painful experience.

Everyone Says I Love You — although almost all of the actors suffer from Allen-itis in this film, although it somehow manages to be less obnoxious because of the music (numbers performed by Edward Norton and Goldie Hawn especially) and light tone. Tim Roth's brilliant portrayal of an ex-con who temporarily sweeps Drew Barrymore off her feet transcends Allen-itis and the rest of the movie.

Husbands and Wives — one of Woody's best, thanks to Judy Davis, who is able to brilliantly channel Allen's need for a neurotic character into her own special, specific rhythms. Davis has worked with Woody many times (To Rome with Love, Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, Alice).

His movies with Mia Farrow — The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, etc. Farrow is such a wonderful, human actress that even when he had her try to approximate his patter she was able to transcend Allen-itis, especially charmingly in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

His movies with Diane Keaton — Annie Hall, Sleeper, Manhattan, etc. Keaton has such a distinct personality that it is likely that she helped shape Allen's oeuvre in the '70s more than vice-versa. In fact maybe Allen-itis is really and truly Keaton-itis ...

"I never work with actors, I just hire them. It's the truth. You know, I hire terrific people. Who have I worked with over the years: Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Helen Hunt, Tracey Ullman, Goldie Hawn, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh. I mean I've worked with these wonderful people who were great before I knew them. They come in, they're great. They do their part great. I don't speak to them much. I have very little to say to them. And they go. And everybody thinks that I'm handling the actors. But I'm not. I'm saying, you know "Change the script. Do what you want. Wear want you want. Walk where you want". You know, and they're saying "Oh, thank you." — An interview with Woody Allen by Lucy Cooper 
"I never try to talk to them. There's no point. You have Anthony Hopkins. What am I going to say to him? I hire them to get out of their way. They've made great movie before me, they'll make great movies after me, and I just don't want to mess them up." — Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing By Bethany Rooney, Mary Lou Belli
“Woody doesn’t direct at all,” he told The Orange County Register. “Seriously, he says that all the time. He doesn’t know how to direct. He says he hires you to do your job, and then he fires you if you can’t. On Purple Rose of Cairo, he started with Michael Keaton, who worked for three weeks, and then he let him go. He couldn’t use any of it. Then Eric Roberts came in, and worked for 10 days, and then Woody let him go, too. A third actor came in, but I can’t remember who that was. And, finally, he got Jeff Daniels.”
“I had a different brother in Crimes and Misdemeanors for the first three days. Woody knows what he wants, but he doesn’t direct. He lets you completely on your own. He doesn’t want to talk about the movie. He’ll talk about the Knicks, about hockey, about anything. If the circus is in town, he’ll tell you how much he hates clowns. Anything to not talk about directing.” — Martin Landau on Working with Woody Allen and the Trouble with Writers: “They have all the characters speaking the same way” DailyActor

Maybe he doth protest too much? A Woody Allen movie is fun for the film buff, as one is sure to see some great and popular actors. Allen always works with top talent. He's an artist who knows what he wants. Like all artists, not every work is a masterpiece, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right, as evidenced by more recent films in his oeuvre, Midnight in Paris, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream. For a man who knocks out one film a year, it's pretty hard to argue with his method with actors.
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